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The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010

In the aftermath of the two suicide bombings which struck the Moscow metro on March 29, the question is – what now? Will there be more attacks, as promised by Doku Umarov, the North Caucasus insurgent leader and the attacks’ orchestrator? And how will the Russian authorities respond?

To maintain a terror campaign in the Russian heartland – in the face of intensified security measure and renewed intelligence activities in the North Caucasus itself – would be a sign that the insurgency is far more organised and capable than many outside observers had given it credit for.

The ‘reactivation’ of the Riyadus Salikhiin suicide battalion last year, the attempted assassination of Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the attack on the Nevsky Express luxury train last November and the use of female ‘Black Widows’ to carry out the Moscow bombings, are all obvious attempts by Umarov to show that the North Caucasus terrorist network is back, after a relative lull in attacks between 2004 and 2008.

Whether these attacks demonstrate a longer-term trend needs to be assessed, beyond the initial wave of panicked media coverage which the attacks generated. To do that, a sense of history is required.

As Julia Ioffe astutely observes, the attacks were not a “game changer in the grander scheme of things” (Foreign Policy, March 30). It was a tragedy, but did not mark a significant change in the dynamics of the insurgency. 2004 – a horrific year which saw the Beslan school siege, the downing of two passenger planes by suicide bombers, and a previous attack on the Moscow metro – witnessed far more bloody atrocities, in the North Caucasus and elsewhere across Russia.

So statements that the attacks “show that the violent and highly unstable situation in the North Caucasus has spread to Moscow and other parts of the country” are short-sighted (Carnegie Endowment, March 31). It always has been a threat across Russia, and has actually been less of a threat in recent years. The Moscow bombings simply demonstrate that the insurgency retains at least some capability to stage out-of-area attacks.

But despite Umarov’s fiery warnings, it remains to be seen whether the network retains the abilities that it possessed under the operational command of Shamil Basayev in the mid-2000s. Said Buryatsky, the recently-killed militant leader, was responsible for re-starting the use of suicide bombers, but his organisational and military abilities beyond this are less clear (Jamestown Foundation, March 11). He was an ideologue rather than a seasoned fighter.

More generally, although the insurgency has indeed spread from Chechnya and across the North Caucasus as it has mutated from an ethno-nationalist struggle into a religious one, this does not necessarily make it more coherent or capable or fulfilling its broader goals.

The decentralisation of the rebellion into autonomous regional jamaats has helped it to survive despite aggressive counter-insurgency by security forces, but has come at the price of cohesion and focus. Jamaats tend to focus on local issues – attacking local security forces, and cracking down on ‘un-Islamic’ behaviour. Although still unified by the figure of Doku Umarov and his jihadist ideology, the insurgency is disjointed.

This partially explains why the number of terrorist activities outside the North Caucasus has dropped, even as violence within the region itself has increased sharply in recent years – local militant groups are pre-occupied with fighting against local security forces, often under serious pressure from aggressive counter-insurgency tactics.

As for the Russian response, most speculation has focused on whether the attacks undermine Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s claims of a successful ‘war on terror’ A youth activist told Radio Free Europe that “Today's attacks can be seen as the collapse of Putin's antiterrorist policies” (RFE/RL, March 30). Again, this is short-sighted. Recent years have seen relative calm outside of the North Caucasus and public consciousness of the threat has receded. If any year should have seen the collapse of the system, it should have been 2004.

The idea that the Moscow bombings – the death toll from which was high but not, given Russia’s recent history, unimaginable – could shake the power of Mr Putin and his ‘power vertical’ is hyperbole. In most analyses, anger at the bombings has been added to a recent wave of protests to show that Russia’s political system is somehow fraying at the seams. It is not.

There may be an intensification of Russia’s efforts in the North Caucasus. President Medvedev will pledge more economic and social assistance – Prime Minister Putin will threaten more aggressive counter-terrorism. But neither of these have made much of a difference over the last several years. There is little chance that they will do so now.

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